The misery of the New York Giants reached another level Monday when the NFL announced its officials incorrectly ruled Sunday’s playoff game was over after a botched field-goal attempt against the San Francisco 49ers. “It doesn’t do us a damn bit of good,” Giant Coach Jim Fassel said. “How they missed that I do not know.”
After reviewing videotape of the final seconds of the 49ers’ 39-38 victory, Mike Pereira, the NFL’s director of officials, said the game’s crew failed to accurately apply rules pertaining to the final play -- a 41-yard field-goal attempt by the Giants -- and should have given kicker Matt Bryant another opportunity to make the kick.
San Francisco Coach Steve Mariucci was informed of the review by Pereira. Asked to respond to the notion that the Giants could have won if the rules had been properly enforced, Mariucci said, “Bummer.” The 49ers are preparing to play at Tampa Bay on Sunday.
With six seconds remaining at San Francisco Stadium, the Giants’ Trey Junkin delivered a low snap that forced holder Matt Allen to reach out of position to grab the ball. By the time he gathered it, Allen realized Bryant had no chance to successfully kick the ball past rushing 49ers.
Allen stood, rolled right and threw a pass toward guard Rich Seubert inside the five-yard line as time expired.
With few exceptions, interior linemen are not allowed to run downfield on passes beyond the line of scrimmage, but Seubert was an eligible receiver on the play. He had lined up at right end, and his eligibility as a receiver was reported to officials by Fassel before the game. Officials typically register such a player’s position change on a small notepad.
As Allen’s pass floated toward him, Seubert was pulled down when his jersey was tugged on by 49er defensive end Chike Okeafor. Officials threw three penalty flags on the failed third-down play, each noting that Giant left guard Tam Hopkins, who was near Seubert, was illegally downfield.
Pereira said Monday the play included offsetting penalties -- the violation by Hopkins and what should have been a pass interference call against Okeafor. Pereira reviewed the game tape with six staff members, all former NFL officials.
Said Fassel, whose team at one point led, 38-14: “It was pass interference, clearly. So them confirming it is, ‘OK, at least you are honest.’ It is not going to change anything. My stomach is already in knots.”
Although time had expired, an NFL game cannot end with offsetting penalties or a defensive penalty. Pereira said the Giants should have received an “untimed down” from the original line of scrimmage, the San Francisco 23. On Dec. 28, Bryant kicked an overtime field goal to beat NFC East champion Philadelphia and clinch a playoff berth for the Giants.
Ernie Accorsi, the Giants’ general manager, told ESPN the NFL announcement was “a bitter pill to swallow,” adding the loss was more difficult to accept than when he was a Cleveland Brown executive and Denver’s John Elway directed “The Drive.”
Okeafor said, “Woulda, coulda, shoulda. I was running down the field and saw a guy wearing 60-something [Seubert is No. 69]. I said, ‘No way is that guy a receiver, but I’m going to make sure he doesn’t catch the ball.’ ”
Had Hopkins not committed the penalty of running downfield and the officials recognized the pass interference, the Giants would have been given one more play from the spot of the defensive penalty -- inside the five.
“We didn’t play the game today, we played it yesterday,” Okeafor said.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the decision to announce the officials’ error was made because of the enormous public interest in the game.
Aiello said the official responsible for the missed pass interference call was back judge Scott Green, who was regarded as the league’s best at his position last season. Green was back judge in last year’s Super Bowl.
“They missed it,” Aiello said. “Our people make mistakes and they are held accountable.”
Aiello did not say if Green, referee Ron Winter or any other member of the game crew would be disciplined, or if they would be restricted from working any more playoff games this year.
A former NFL official who requested anonymity said his peers “kicked it big time.”
“Watching it, I was confused,” the official said. “I was really surprised they didn’t spend more time sorting it out. There should have been more questioning among the officials as they huddled on this, where someone should have asked, ‘Are we sure we got this doggone thing right?’ ”
The official said there is precedent for an extended review, noting Miami’s AFC East-clinching victory at New England in 2000. That dispute -- over whether quarterback Drew Bledsoe had fumbled or thrown an incomplete pass -- forced the teams to return to the field from their dressing rooms for a final play 35 minutes after what was originally believed to have been the end of the game.
Unlike Green Bay Coach Mike Sherman, who missed a chance to challenge a muffed-punt turnover in Saturday’s loss to Atlanta, Fassel had no recourse. Pass interference is not a penalty subject to replay review.
Instead of devoting extra attention to Seubert’s eligibility as a receiver, 49er special teams coach Bruce DeHaven said the officials “probably didn’t do that because 500 people were running on the field and it was just easier to head to the locker room.”
Fox commentators added to the confusion. Game analyst Cris Collinsworth criticized Allen for not spiking the ball on the botched snap, contending that doing so on third down would have given the Giants another chance to make the kick on fourth down if time remained. Those in the Fox football studio heaped praise on Collinsworth for his insight. The Times also reported that a spike by Allen would have given the Giants “a fourth-down do-over.”
But the NFL noted Monday that a spike by Allen would have resulted in an intentional grounding penalty and a 10-second clock runoff that would have ended the game. Allen’s options beyond connecting with a receiver for a touchdown were to either quickly throw the ball incomplete toward an eligible receiver or hurriedly throw the ball out of bounds while outside the pocket -- and hoping time remained.
“Even outstanding analysts make mistakes,” Fox Sports spokesman Lou D’Ermilio said. “I don’t think you can say the NFL has too many vague rules. It’s a unique challenge to decipher what is going on in the amount of time live television has at the end of a game. Every time and again, you miss something. We always want to be 100% accurate. We want all of our announcers to be as familiar with the rules as they can possibly be. This reemphasizes that goal. But there were mistakes by a lot of people in that game, not just us.”
Staff writer Steve Springer contributed to this report.